Researchers Are Putting a Multidisciplinary Spin on Teaching Physics
National Science Foundation Grant Will Fund Study That Employs Computer Programming Concepts

Midori Kitagawa

Dr. Midori Kitagawa

UT Dallas researchers are launching a three-year research project that uses specialized computer programs to teach children physics, thanks to a recent grant of more than $1 million from the National Science Foundation’s STEM + Computing (STEM+C) program.

The study, Scaffolded Training Environment for Physics Programming (STEPP), will test a novel approach for teaching physics to high school students — computer-based learning programs that require no prior coding experience.

Dr. Midori Kitagawa, lead STEPP investigator and associate professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication, said the idea for this project came from a fortuitous moment three years ago.

“I was listening to the radio in my car, and the program was talking about the benefits that learning a second language gave to other areas of study,” Kitagawa said.

She wondered if programming languages might bestow the same advantages. Her prior work in teaching interactive media indicated that adopting the mindset of a programmer could help breathe new life into what she saw as an unnecessarily disparate core curriculum at the high school level.

“There can be more synergistic, multidisciplinary approaches instead of everything being taught separately,” Kitagawa said.

Enlisting Colleagues Across Disciplines

To help with this undertaking, she pitched the idea to friend and colleague Dr. Paul Fishwick, ATEC Distinguished University Chair, whose specialization in computer modeling and simulation made him a natural fit.

Paul Fishwick

Dr. Paul Fishwick

“This research sets up ATEC as a catalyst for a transdisciplinary way of teaching computing concepts, even beyond computer science,” Fishwick said.

He believes cooperation between departments to achieve a whole greater than the sum of its parts helps in achieving the mission of ATEC, and it’s why he and Kitagawa strove for a team with a varied professional background.

That team includes three other co-principal investigators: Dr. Michael Kesden, assistant professor in the Department of Physics; Dr. Mary Urquhart, head of the Department of the Science/Mathematics Education; and Dr. Rosanna Guadagno, researcher at Stanford University’s Peace Innovation Lab.

The STEPP team is developing a programming platform that allows a student with little or no knowledge of computer coding to build a system of rules and procedures from the ground up.

“Most students’ first class in computer science is programming, but we’re not doing that. We’re using modeling,” Kitagawa said.

A Pen and Paper Approach

Mary Urquhart

Dr. Mary Urquhart

To better understand the concept of the state diagrams at the heart of their design, Urquhart said to imagine students playing with a toy car.

“What this car is doing can be described a number of ways. A very simple description could describe the car as not moving, moving forward, or moving backwards. Each of these descriptions is a state for the car,” Urquhart said. “These states in physics would correspond to either zero velocity or the direction of a velocity vector. An action is required to change the state of the car. In the context of physics, this action is a force.”

The students will put this hypothetical into practice by creating a rudimentary diagram of the car’s different states — not moving, moving forward, etc. — and then use Unity, a computer program development platform, to translate it into a working simulation.

By eschewing the common path of teaching programming, the researchers did not want to rely on existing literature and teaching methods. Instead, their approach sees their students using pen and paper before a keyboard and mouse.

“So many discussions in physics take place without any math or computation, at least initially. If you throw a ball against a wall, does it bounce up or down or what?” Fishwick said. “Those discussions in English need to be a part of the curriculum, and the first level of our approach covers that.”

Michael Kesden

Dr. Michael Kesden

They are hopeful that STEPP will provide students with both the tools to successfully use computer science as an application and a thorough understanding of how those tools could be used to solve a broad range of problems.

The project will involve UT Dallas graduate research assistants and two high school teachers. James Stanfield and Henry Vo, physics and computer science teachers at Richardson High School, respectively, will provide their expertise and students for the study, and will share their expertise with other teachers.

The team expects to do initial testing of their software this fall. After that, a summer institute will be held in 2019 for the first full batch of high school teachers to test. Student testing is planned shortly thereafter.

Some team members, like Guadagno, stress the importance of making the STEM+C field a more attractive choice for young students, especially women. And they all believe their research can improve young minds.

“Choosing to work with high school students is ambitious but necessary,” Kesden said. “This prepares them for a workforce with a programming gap, especially in the private sector and education.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].